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A snapshot of Rhodes - then 30 years later...

As a young photographer, Hugh Nutt captured an image of three people riding a scooter across the Greek island. Almost three decades on, he returned in search of that family

"It's OK my friend," he said. "I work as a professional photographer." I reflected on the irony as I handed over the camera from which I make my living, to the rotund and sweating donkey taxi guide. I wanted a photographic record of my incongruous rise up through the cobbled streets of Lindos to the ancient Acropolis above, mounted on Stephanos my long-eared, battle-weary and reluctant transportation.

This was my second trip to the island of Rhodes, the previous one being in 1985. I was 21 then and studying for a degree in photography. My assignment was to take travel documentary photographs in Greece – a good way to spend a year. From that shoot in 1985 one image has always stood out. It was a photograph of what I assumed to be three generations of a Greek family riding past on a moped. When I took it I knew it would be important to me. Now, almost three decades on, I'd returned to Rhodes in the hope of finding the faint trail of this Greek family. I had no names or addresses, just that sepia-toned picture on my iPad.

First, an impulse stop at a roadside taverna called Coralli in Pefkos, a suburb of Lindos. Smiling faces beckoned me in, revealing not just the restaurant, but also a large swimming pool bordered by sunbathers of various shades and sizes. Waiters balanced trays resplendent with terracotta bowls, filled with taramosalata pinks and hummus browns.

I asked one waiter if he knew anyone in my photograph. He looked a bit affronted when I told him it had been taken in 1985 – he himself was not much older than 20. He shook his head, smiled and cleared away the remains of a meze. As I left, though, he called over the owner, a Greek woman with eyes like Sophia Loren. I passed over the iPad. She actually froze, staring in astonishment and paused for several seconds.

"Yes I know these people." And with a nod of pleasure: "They live in the next village, Archangelos! 100 per cent!"

Archangelos was hot, quiet and heavy with petrol fumes. As I arrived at the outskirts of the village, I encountered a man finishing his lunch alone at a roadside pizza restaurant. He looked up with a slightly tired expression as I approached, but he brightened a little when he saw my photograph: "Yes, I know him. His name is Mike; he is a bus driver."

He rose from his afternoon meal and gestured me to follow. After a short walk he pointed up a dusty road of whitewashed villas. "He lives further up there but will be working now," he said. "Driving you tourists. Try later."

I returned later in the evening. The heat had softened and a steady chatter of chores being completed could be heard up and down the street. Olive trees seemingly planted by chance and front garden farmyards juxtaposed with a set of smart white villas with pebble mosaic forecourts.

Out came the iPad again. There was gratifying recognition of the 27-year-old picture from a woman hanging out her washing. She spoke no English but pointed on up the road. I asked another woman a few houses further on, who continued hosing down her steps and gestured towards a side road then shouted with conspiratorial laughter in her voice to a third woman dressed in black sitting on her vine-covered porch. She in turn rose from her chair and with both hands joined pointed me onward then raised her hands toward her mouth as if in prayer.

I zigzagged onwards, black-dressed Greek women gesturing me on like a surreal team of usherettes. Spotting a younger woman and her two children, I showed the picture once more and asked again: "Which house, do you know?"

She smiled as they all had and pointed to a white villa with three doors slightly set back from the road. "In there," she indicated.

As I knocked on the middle door, I realised that after all this time I had not prepared or rehearsed what I was going to say or do. A grunt from within caused me momentary concern, then a slightly perturbed man appeared.

Dark hazel brown eyes assessed and inquired, a cigarette protruded from his mouth, the smoke drifting up to blend with silver grey hair. He'd obviously been relaxing, just back from work, shirt open to the waist, loose-fitting shorts and comfortable leather sandals – but he was unmistakably the man I had photographed nearly 30 years ago.

I showed him the photograph. It seemed simplest. A look of incredulity crossed his face. He pushed a patio chair towards me and signalled for me to wait, then disappeared inside. I wondered what he thought of seeing himself again. Did he feel sadness for lost youth? Thoughts of mortality?

Moments later family members began to emerge from various doors with bemused, confused and amused expressions. Then came the emotion. The iPad was passed around and there were expressions of surprise and delight mixed with teary eyes.

I was then formally introduced to the Tsambika family: Michael (or Michaeles), who had quickly changed into a smart blue shirt and trousers, was the father in the photograph. Haroula the daughter, aged then just five. "The older lady on the back of the bike was my mother, and was also called Haroula," said Tsakiri, Michaeles' charismatic wife. They had been riding to drop grandma Haroula at work that morning in September 1985 at the restaurant they owned on Tsambika beach. Tsakiri still worked there as her mother had continued to do up until her death 18 months before.

Michaeles spoke little English but his son Vasilli, also a bus driver, was fluent. He smiled and shook his head in astonishment for most of our meeting. He told us how his father had come bursting back into the house shouting "There is a man at the door with a photograph!" with no further explanation, leaving everyone mystified. Then Stella, Tsakiris' twin sister, joined the unlikely gathering and was deeply moved by the picture; her mother's death still clearly resonated. In a quiet moment she picked up the iPad and kissed her mother's image several times, deep emotion in her face and tears coming to her eyes.

Vasilli mentioned later his uncle was now using the moped in the original photograph.

"How's it going?" I asked, and he smiled and shook his head in astonishment once more. "Still going strong," he said.